As a confession, I never got around to playing through the original Darksiders. I had no shortage of people extolling its virtues on me and touting its interesting premise and gameplay, but there it is. As it turns out, the sequel does a pretty good job of bringing you up to speed on the events of the original game, and it wastes no time before throwing you into the gameplay. In Darksiders II, you play as Death, who tries to prove that his brother, War, is innocent of the perceived crimes from the first game.
For a game where you play as Death, rider of the Pale Horse, the game is surprisingly colorful and epic. Rather than being portrayed as a simplistic reaper of souls, Death is quite well written and voiced, embodied as a muscular berserker rather than the archetypal slender, cloaked figure. Death's signature weapon is still the scythe, though it's wielded as a pair with shorter handles. This allows you to rapidly move around in the battlefield, rolling out of the way of enemy attacks and then unleashing a quick burst of damage in return.
One of the first noticeable things in the PC port of Darksiders II is that the keyboard and mouse controls don't really fit the gameplay. There are simply too many functions and key combinations that you need to quickly access, and though the controls are serviceable, the game feels much better while using some sort of gamepad. Other PC-centric settings for graphics are present, enough to tweak settings such as shadowing, anti-aliasing, v-sync, and ambient occlusion. At launch, the PC version had some issues, but a patch was quickly released that addressed them, and other than the control issues, there really aren't any problems specific to the PC port.
Though you play as a historically macabre character, the environments are largely anything but. Early in the game, you fight your way through sweeping fields that are overlooked by colorful vistas, and even in the more glum areas, there is still a lot of color. It really helps to keep everything visually lively, and it makes even the most glum of dungeons feel like an epic adventure. Enemy design runs a fairly wide gamut, and it subtly changes from area to area.
The combat mechanics are similar to games such as the God of War series, with Death dealing various attacks and special abilities as well as dodge and roll out of the way of attacks. Dodging is a bit more difficult than it is in other games, as it doesn't provide any momentary invulnerability during the roll. You can roll out of the way of one attack and right into another, and more often than not, if you get surrounded, it is better to just leap out of the fray and regroup than to try to dodge attacks.
As you eliminate enemies, they grant you an amount of experience, and after enough is gained, Death gains a level. These levels aren't as impactful as you would expect out of an RPG, and realistically, they boil down to granting you another skill point to spend and letting you use gear with higher level requirements. Skill points are spent in one of two skill trees, one that improves Death's prowess as a more traditional fighter and one that amps up his ability to summon entities to temporarily fight with him on battle. The spending of skill points is largely up to player preference; some unlock new abilities, but most augment previously unlocked powers in different ways.
Using abilities depletes your mana bar, which is slowly built up by dealing any normal attack to an enemy. This allows for a lot more freedom to use abilities without worrying about consuming potions or some other item, and it also prevents the need to sit back and wait for mana to recharge. Potions can be used as a quick fix in the middle of a fight, but you can only carry a small amount, and they are pretty rare. Your mana level is a tactical resource that requires some thought as to when and where you want to use an ability, and in some of the more difficult fights, using abilities can tip the scales in your favor. For example, one move is a teleport dash than can be upgraded to grant you some health, but it can also be used to slash through — and then appear behind — an enemy.
Enemies also occasionally drop various loot (money and gear) when killed. Money plays a surprisingly minor role in the game; it allows you to purchase new gear, but most of the time, your current loadout is very similar, if not better. Money can also be used to purchase new moves, and you can gamble with it to purchase loot boxes that can yield a random piece of gear. Even if you don't impulsively break every vase and barrel to scrape together the paltry sums of money, you usually end up with a fair pile of cash at any given time, so it practically becomes a meaningless number.
For all of the gear in the game, it feels like it has little impact on the gameplay. There are exceptions, such as finally attaining the level to use a powerful new weapon or piece of gear, but most of it amounts to upgrades that aren't perceived during gameplay. Some may help you deal more damage or take less damage, but almost all of your resources can be replenished during regular combat, so the impact certainly feels less significant. Gear changes your visual appearance, and there are some awesome-looking examples, but the cosmetic impact of the gear is usually greater than its contribution to combat.
Much of Darksiders II is spent fighting your way through various environments that immediately invoke thoughts of the dungeons from the Zelda series, only much more fleshed out. You'll work through environments filled with heaps of combat and puzzle solving, both of which grow in difficulty as the game progresses. You find keys to open locked doors, treasure chests filled with new loot, and new movement abilities to let you access previously inaccessible areas. The game often rewards thoughtful exploration, tucking items in out-of-sight or hard-to-reach places, but it's made trivial by the fact that treasure chests show up on the minimap. Other items do not, and some of the treasure chests on the map still require thought to reach, but the game makes it awfully hard to miss any.
Progress deep enough into a dungeon, and you will face some sort of boss fight. Bosses usually have a nuance that can be exploited, but it can be difficult until you figure it out. This is never more apparent than it is during one mid-game boss that towers hundreds of feet in the air; you practically have to fight it on horseback. Once their weaknesses are figured out, bosses become easy to put down, but doing so still feels like a satisfying accomplishment.
More interesting is how the game handles its cadence of boss fights, dungeons and safe zones. Rather than have stark lines of separation among them, you often wade between them without noticing. You will leave a shop screen and get on your horse to head out, and a few minutes later, you realize that you're entering a new dungeon. By avoiding the usually overdone fanfare to announce such things, the gameplay feels much more organic, as though the game is one big world rather than a series of separate areas.
Ultimately, Darksiders II often makes you think of how it is similar to other games in certain respects, but it still feels like its own creature. The combat is enjoyable if a bit mindless, but considering how some of the puzzles can be, that might not be a bad thing. However, since skills and gear have such little leverage in the game, it feels like something substantial is missing. The rest of the game doesn't suffer, and the title is certainly engaging, but Darksiders II feels like it hasn't lived up to its full potential.
More articles about Darksiders II